(originally published on the Coilhouse blog, November 23, 2010)
Devoted and cultish readers extol John Allison as “a rare gem in the often hard-to-navigate web comic underbelly.” Though you may not presently be reading John Allison’s current endeavor, Bad Machinery, chances are that you are perhaps already familiar with him through his older works, Scary Go Round (2002-2009) or Bobbins (1998-2002), or as an artist/chum linked to through one or more of his contemporaries.
Fans of Jeffrey Rowland’s Overcompensating for example, will recognize Allison as “The Englishman” , a British gentleman of dubious distinction who occasionally happens upon the scene to politely antagonize the regulars. Or, through Dumbrella Collective alum, R. Stevens, mastermind behind Diesel Sweeties and 8-bit illustrator of our charming editrixes here at Coilhouse. Maybe even through one of the dynamic guest strips he has provided over the years to one of your long-time favourite web comic artists.
Marked by clever, peculiar dialogue, absurdist humor, dotty characters (and delightful ladies fashion!), mysterious happenings and hi-jinks, and a dense mythology (though compelling and completely addictive, to which anyone who has begun to peek through his archives can attest) – John Allison’s story-telling genius is unmistakable. And in a medium where visuals are the reason most viewers show up in the first place, the exquisitely charming, highly stylized art is “as big a draw as the comedy”.
Described as “postmodern Brit horror”, Allison’s previous comic, Scary Go Round followed the hapless denizens of Tackleford, a fictional British town beset by all manner of supernatural activity including, but not limited to: zombies, space owls, the devil, and portals to other dimensions. Though Scary Go Round ended in 2009 [EDIT: though it periodically picks back up again!] a few of his beloved characters have moved on to Bad Machinery, which picks up in Tackleford 3 years later. The focus is on an entirely new cast of sleuthing schoolchildren attending Griswald’s Grammar School, whose well-intentioned energies may be causing more problems than the mysteries they solve – but they throw themselves into it all with much vigor and aplomb.
I recently caught up with John Allison about his new endeavor; see below the cut for our Q&A in which John talks about the transition between old stories and new, the state of web comics today, and the meaning behind the monsters.
UNQUIET THINGS: Right now the “Big Push”, as it were, is your current series, Bad Machinery. When you made the change to become a full time comic-ing man in 2003-ish, was Bad Machinery even a twinkle in your eye at that time, or was it something that evolved over the years from the characters that you developed in Scary Go Round? Has it been almost a year now since Scary Go Round ended? How has the jump from Scary Go Round to Bad Machinery gone? What were your expectations regarding your fans reactions? Were they met, or exceeded? (or neither?)
JOHN ALLISON:I certainly had no notion of creating Bad Machinery when I went full-time back in 2003. That was 7 years ago! It seems like a lifetime. At that point, Scary Go Round was just starting to get on its feet, audience-wise. It had only been running for about 12 months. Last summer I was frustrated with how sprawling Scary Go Round had become, and (not for the first time) I tried to work out what would make a good spin-off. I wanted something with a tight concept, so I couldn’t drift too far off my initial idea. And I wanted something that I could sell to a publisher in good conscience – something that wasn’t a mess!
I had some vague thoughts in my mind, a kind of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys setup in the Tintin format (having read almost none of the former and admiring rather than loving the latter). I was probably very tired at the time!
The reaction wasn’t great, people loved the Scary Go Round characters. My last year of work on the series had been really spotty and I thought that readers would breathe a huge sigh of relief. And they did – as they stopped reading. Over the first month, half of the old SGR audience went south. It was a very frightening time. It wasn’t helped by what may have been the slowest introduction to a comic ever. Some readers were angry about “having to read about children”. They strongly identified with the old cast and were horrified by the new.
In that first month, while I was trying to find the mood and the tone of the piece, some long and pretty scathing reviews appeared on prominent blogs, the general theme being “by the end Scary Go Round had lost its way, and this is more of the same – but WORSE!” They tended to cite Berke Breathed’s Outland, his follow-up to Bloom County, where all the old characters slowly re-appeared. But for me, bringing back all the fan favourites that, to be honest, I never wanted to see again, made me feel ill. It was a miserable time, I went from believing in this new thing, to quickly doubting everything I did. I was fortunate that many of my friends in comics really supported what I was doing.
After a year, the comic has started to find new readers alongside the ones who stuck around, and it’s extremely gratifying when people write and say that they never read Scary Go Round, but they love Bad Machinery.
While Scary Go Round focused a on group of young adults in their early to mid twenties…and then later in the series you added several high school characters, this new batch for Bad Machinery are little folks, rather young – in grammar school, I believe. What prompted you to go in this direction?
I wanted to write all-ages books, kids’ literature that stands up when you read it today. I loved the Just William books, and I can still read them now, the writing is sophisticated and hilarious. It may be that this is not what the market wants, but as an exercise it was what I wanted to do. It also stops you leaning on lazy attention-getting devices – sudden death, sudden sexy times. You have to be a lot more resourceful as you write.
Both your comics are /were quite character driven, but the plots usually revolve around the general strange goings-on in town or the odd beastie du jour. .. previously we’ve seen zombies, vampires, dimensional portals etc., but I imagine writing about children presents the opportunity to introduce all kind of imaginative monsters and new bits of wonderful weirdness into the story. Your thoughts?
The idea of Bad Machinery is that the supernatural mysteries are a distraction from the real dangers, which are personal. All through “The Case Of The Good Boy”, the actual manifest danger is how Jack is being victimised through no fault of his own, and he can’t really ask for help. He’s the good boy! No one has spotted this. I’m probably not doing my job very well, am I? I like drawing monsters and beasts, but they’re not real so they lack a certain weight for me.
With regard to “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night” – I am keenly interested in hearing about your influences as such things go. From some of the references culled from within the Scary Go Round archive, one might be inclined to think that you’ve had some personal dealings with the Old Deceiver himself, ha! Or perhaps some passing familiarity with esoteric studies of some sort. Or at the very least a subscription to the Fortean Times. Can you tell us from where you draw your inspiration?
I’m an arriviste in this field, a dilletante. I don’t like horror movies and I’m scared of books about ghosts. There was a Dennis Wheatley book in the house when I was a child, with a picture of Satan on the back, I was scared of that too. All my work is a metaphor for actual real life problems. I did a story where a character’s girlfriend is blown up in a caravan and thereafter exists, and is seen sporadically, in the afterlife. That was about long distance relationships. When I tried to do actual mystical stuff, and I say this with no fear of contradiction, it wasn’t all that good. The problem is, when you’re generating a lot of material, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re doing.
You’ve been doing this for quite a while now, practically when there were dinosaurs on the internet (as opposed to in space) – what are some changes – for the better or the worse – that you’ve seen in that time? Can you tell us briefly about your progression from when you got started to where you are now?
People’s attention spans are knackered. The internet has become a Las Vegas casino, a comfortable, noisy area designed to keep you disorientated and keep you spending money. Good luck trying to find attention with longform work. But I think there’s a sense now that we have to push back in the opposite direction, that people don’t want to read articles surrounded by video ads and animation.
I started in webcomics when almost no one was doing them and occupied a privileged position at the forefront of almost every movement – Keenspot, merchandising, bigger web presence at conventions, when there was less competition. Based on that, I have probably underperformed to an extent! But when people who went on to huge success cite me as an influence, I am enormously proud. I just wish they would put a huge link to my work on their website, next to a giant animated arrow.
Now that we have caught up to present day…can we expect to stick with these characters for awhile, to see them grow and mature as they continue to battle monsters and solve mysteries? Can you give us a peek into what might be in store for our young friends? Or…do you already have something else – something entirely new – brewing?
I’m going to take a month off Bad Machinery to do a mini-series about one of the Scary Go Round characters. It’s kind of a pilot for a series, though if it became a full series I doubt I would have time to draw it myself. I’ve spent months working on the character designs and getting the look and feel of the thing. It gives me a chance to draw adults again, something i do miss. I love drawing fashion and of late have started to feel out of it – there’s only so much of that kind of design work that you can do with 12 year old characters. But I have a thirdBad Machinery story worked out, it’s kind of ludicrous and sad at the same time. Even though it’s been an uphill struggle, post Scary Go Round, I love writing the new comic. If people get that from it, then the difficulties are by and large worth it.
The idea is to do a “case” for each of the three terms of seven years of grammar school. If I get that far, we’ll have been places together. I hope that I get the chance.